Discussed in this essay:
• The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 206 pp.
• Suttree, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 480 pp.
• Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 352 pp.
• All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 320 pp.
• The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 432 pp.
• Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 292 pp.
• No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.00. 309 pp.
• The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 287 pp.
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It is telling that critics frequently compare Cormac McCarthy’s novels to dreams. Two examples: in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates stated that McCarthy’s work is reminiscent of one of Pascal Pensées: “Life is a dream a little less inconstant.” Earlier in the same journal, Denis Donoghue found recourse to Freud: “[a dream] does not think, calculate, or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form.”
Oates and Donoghue do not resort to the tired and superficial cliché, dreamlike; rather they use the language of dreams to describe fiction at once teasingly intimate yet also fundamentally alienated from us. They acknowledge the often surreal quality of McCarthy’s fiction but imply an underlying sensibility beneath the chaos. Indeed, both quotes cut down two of the most persistent critiques of McCarthy: moral ambiguity and a lack of interest in penetrating beneath surfaces. Pascal and Freud offer rejoinders: dreams, like McCarthy, may appear unbound, but they have a power over us that belies that claim.
Still, as with many misstatements there is kernel of truth to the criticism of McCarthy: few other authors working over the last forty years have so thoroughly restricted themselves to the simple act of giving things a new form. That McCarthy does this with a singular ability is inarguable; even his detractors will grant the inherent beauty of McCarthy’s prose. In fact, more than any other postwar writer he is identified as the heir of that ultimate Southern stylist, William Faulkner; Madison Smartt Bell has even declared McCarthy one of very few authors to walk in Faulkner’s shadow and escape to tell the tale. The Faulkner comparison, of course, owes much to McCarthy’s Southern Gothic sensibilities and his obsessive mapping and re-mapping of the town of Knoxville, Tennessee; but, less superficially, the comparison is made because both Faulkner and McCarthy have discovered potent new ways to structure sentences, and because each could trammel up a deep, bassy vatic voice without estranging the surrounding prose.
McCarthy has given new shades to the English language, and that should be enough. Were he a painter or a composer, or perhaps even a poet, it probably would be, but Cormac McCarthy is a fiction writer, and fiction is generally construed to carry burdens above and beyond anything so frivolous as mere style. Stories must mean something. They must appear to argue for or against moral systems—or at least interrogate them. They must be a little less inconstant than dreams.
It is strange to charge McCarthy with not caring about anything more than surfaces, as his single most famous public utterance indicates otherwise. This is the author who declared “I don’t understand [Proust and Henry James]. To me, that’s not literature” because real literature “deals with issues of life and death.”
Here McCarthy reveals his great interest in the choices his characters make. True, he may not realize that, to Proust and James, Swann’s choice to court Odette or Isabel Archer’s choice to marry Osmond are issues just as “life and death” as any murder or tryst found in McCarthy, but the quote still flatly contradicts the claim that McCarthy is a pure formalist. And does McCarthy’s work itself back up his claim? Yes. In fact, in each of his ten novels McCarthy has showed an obsession with the rare, crucial moments when people make the decisions that will define their lives forever.
From the very beginning, McCarthy has been an author fascinated by the give-and-take between modern-day humans and the multiple systems they are exposed to in day-to-day life. These systems react potently with McCarthy’s other great novelistic concern: the alienated individual and his ultimate recognition (with McCarthy it is invariable a he) that no one can stand outside of human society, and that our codes and bureaucracies decide for us far more often than we actually decide for ourselves. McCarthy’s novels are built around the rare moments of genuine decision-making when the swell and swirl of the world pulls back to relinquish agency to the individual.
In this way, the work of Cormac McCarthy strikes deep into the heart of American literature, as his books are always rooted in that most American of themes: the search for identity. In McCarthy it is often seen as an obsession with borders: of personal identity, of physical place, and of spiritual position within an existential realm of conflicting value systems.
In exploring these borders, McCarthy has carved out what is perhaps a unique place in all of American letters; he has overseen the decline of a traditional way of life in the American South while also personalizing and reframing the rise and fall of the romanticized American West. His protagonists, so similar and yet so different, have revealed the overlap between what are generally understood as two discrete historical phenomena. And in his final novel to date, McCarthy has even showed an ability to project these typical concerns into purely speculative territory, to improbably yet powerfully fuse his earthy immediacy with the lightness of fantasy. Throughout all of this, McCarthy is grounded by his interest in moments of choice and their attendant moral consequences.
The Orchard Keeper
In McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, one sees an author so impressed with his plainly enormous literary powers that there is no thing, however small, that he will not test them out upon. The book is resplendent with visual imagery for almost every item it touches. Lightning in particular is described in so many ways that one almost longs for a clichéd bolt.
Prodigies can be prodigious, and although McCarthy’s imaginative powers here are humbling (in particular, one can hardly imagine how a thirty-two-year-old of modest means developed such an engorged vocabulary), his shovelfuls of imagery lack precise deployment. When every last thing is worthy of lyrical flights, the world is curiously flattened; imagery, like sentence rhythm, must be varied or risk monotony, and The Orchard Keeper succumbs to such a dulling. 1
Still, The Orchard Keeper clearly marked the emergence of an enormous talent, one that quite portentously appeared on the stage fully formed. In large part, The Orchard Keeper is written with the same stylistic tics that that Harold Bloom would later celebrate in Blood Meridian as, to paraphrase, the most remarkable American prose accomplishment since Pynchon. Already, we see: the fresh refurbishment of nouns and adjectives as verbs; the repeated joining of two unlikely nouns to create an adjective without precedent in English; quotation-less dialogue; language that reaches toward the portent and cadence of epic (commonly referred to as “vatic”); the frequent use of proper names and highly precise, almost scientific language to describe nature; and the casual employment of archaic-sounding, uncommon words that perfectly fit the bumps and flows of their sentences. Before The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy did publish a handful of short stories in little magazines, and in these stories it is possible to see the author unformed, but these works are hard to come by, a fact that McCarthy himself seems to take pride in: he has stated that he would not like them to be republished until he is “long buried and mouldering.” 2
Some have called The Orchard Keeper’s plot nonexistent; at the least it is heavily fractured book, like a shattered china pot whose fragments have been mussed around. What plot the book has revolves around a drifter picked up as a hitchhiker, who then inexplicably tries to kill the driver, only to be killed himself. Tens of pages later—after several jumps in time, narration, and point of view—a boy is made to swear vengeance on the unknown man who killed his father (it is only at the end of the book that McCarthy confirms our assumptions that the boy’s father is the murdered man). The Orchard Keeper is among McCarthy’s most demanding reads because of its fragmentation, the book’s heavily stylized prose, and McCarthy’s penchant for narrating pages and pages of various fragments without ever uttering a proper name or other identifying characteristic. Never again will McCarthy publish such a structurally ambitious, deliberately opaque work.
The Orchard Keeper’s plot limns themes of fathers and sons: the three main characters represent three generations of males, all fatherless and all linked by the father who is murdered at the novel’s beginning. These implied familial bonds contrast with the bureaucratized, urban morality that butts up against this more “natural” morality of rural Appalachian society. This is the recurring struggle throughout all of McCarthy’s career. He is drawn to rural outcasts, implicitly sympathizing with their plight as the modernizing United States infringes on their turf, although he rarely becomes sentimental or romanticizes their lives. Rather than offer explanations or solutions, McCarthy simply embodies this conflict. Progress is unstoppable, these men’s way of life will be erased in a generation—this much is clear and McCarthy shows no interest in dealing with what’s obvious and inevitable. Instead, what interests him are the ways in which people react to the inevitable change, especially how they attempt to apprehend this time of great uncertainty and moral confusion and what practical measures they take up in defense. McCarthy lets his men weigh the slim possibility of escape, and although he never grants the men escape, on seldom occasions he does give certain characters a measure of redemption.
This rural/urban conflict is elegantly dramatized near the end of The Orchard Keeper: Sylder, an underground whiskey-runner who is pursued by the police for much of the novel, is finally caught. As he sits in jail awaiting his sentence, he is visited by a fiercely loyal preteen boy who he has taken under his wing, and whose father he has unwittingly murdered. At first Sylder makes light of his incarceration and explains it thus:
Well I had a little disagreement with these fellers . . . as to whether a man can haul untaxed whiskey over tax-kept roads or whether by not payin the whiskey tax he forfeits the privilege of drivin over the roads the whiskey don’t keep up that ain’t taxed or if it was would be illegal anyway.
There’s a touch of bravado here and more than a little irony, but Sylder’s twisting, switchbacking remarks do honestly embody the confusion attendant to the clash of worlds. Sylder understands that he broke the law and thus must be punished, but his remarks betray his deeper sense that he did nothing wrong.
To these two moral orders a third is added when the boy vows to murder Giffords, the officer who apprehended Sylder. At first Sylder tries to casually discard the offer (“So I thank ye kindly but no thank ye, you don’t owe me nothing”), but the boy insists, forcing Sylder to lay out the case in its full confusion:
You think because he arrested me that throws it off again I reckon? I don’t. It’s his job. It’s what he gets paid for. To arrest people that break the law. And I didn’t jest break the law, I made a livin at it. . . . More money in three hours than a workin man makes in a week. Why is that? Because it’s harder work? No, because a man who makes a livin doin something that has to get him in jail sooner or later has to be paid for the jail, has to be paid in advance not jest for his time breakin the law but for the time he has to build when he gets caught at it. So I been paid. Gifford’s been paid. Nobody owes nobody. If it wadn’t for Gifford, the law, I wouldn’t of had the job I had blockading and if it wadn’t for me blockading, Gifford wouldn’t of had his job arrestin blockaders. Now who owes who?
In its yin/yang-like formulation and its final, vaguely Eastern question, Sylder’s monologue makes a brilliant summation of the central moral question that will animate McCarthy’s later works: When each side of the equation requires the other to exist, can we coherently speak of right and wrong, of justice, revenge, and “owing” each other? In regard to this question, what makes The Orchard Keeper a lesser work than later novels is that McCarthy never ventures to represent Giffords’ side of the equation, either directly or indirectly. We only see Sylder’s side and thus are implicitly asked to sympathize with him. The novels Suttree and Blood Meridian strike a much better balance in representing other perspectives in the text. They become truly polyphonic and dialectic, respectively, and as such they lead McCarthy into highly interesting territory.
But before we get there, there are the rest of McCarthy’s early works . . .
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